WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
“Eight Virtues that Promote Relational Harmony”
In this passage Paul stresses the virtues that believers are to pursue in order to promote the oneness of Spirit that Jesus prayed would exist among His people (Jn.17:21-23). In teaching these virtues, Paul uses imagery to help his readers understand in practical terms, their part in the ethical transformation of their lives. Paul says that we are to “put off” the sinful orientations of our former life as sinners in rebellion to God, and “put on” godly virtues in their place. The imagery is taking off old and dirty clothing associated with who we were prior to salvation, and replacing them with new clean clothes befitting the children of the King of Glory. Just as one would shed unwanted or filthy garments and instead put on clean ones, so Christians are to choose to remove evil choices and behaviors from their lives and instead adopt the virtues that are consistent with our new natures and status in the Kingdom of God.
Paul also includes an important principle about life-change. The idea of putting off so you can put on, is an expression of the principle of substitution. Nature abhors a vacuum. Therefore, if one simply stops engaging in undesirable behavior alone, it will create a behavioral void that must be filled. If one does not consciously choose to substitute something specific in their place, the old behaviors and choices will return. Therefore, Paul urges believers not simply to shed the wicked practices of the flesh, but to incorporate the virtues of the Spirit into their lifestyles.
I. Control Your Temper: (vs.8)
The first three things that the Colossian believers were told to “put off” are all related to the ability to control one’s temper. First, Paul mentions “anger”. The Greek word translated as “anger” refers to a smoldering long-term resentment that bubbles just below the surface. Anger is to be put off because resentment of another prevents any real bond from forming between two people. Others are usually not oblivious to the fact when we are angry with them. Nor, are we as successful as we think we are at suppressing our anger. The estrangement created by hostility runs counter to God’s purpose. It is His desire that we grow in mutual love with our fellow believers. Therefore to retain one’s anger, is to consciously resist the purposes of God. We put away anger by recognizing, that unjustified or inappropriately directed anger, is evil. Having done this we deal with whatever the root cause is in our hearts that has been fueling the anger; such as jealousy, envy, bitterness, or pride.
The Greek word translated as “wrath” refers to outbursts of rage. These overt expressions of anger seriously damage even the closest of relationships, and can undermine the prospect that new ones will be formed with those who either witnessed the outburst or were the object of it. These outbursts occur because underlying issues of anger have not been dealt with. In other words, a person does not go from a state of tranquility to rage. Rage is expressed because the individual was already angry and something caused that anger to flare from smoldering to explosive. Therefore if one deals with their anger in general, it will prevent eruptions of rage.
The Greek word translated as “malice” comes from a root that refers to that which is evil. The word refers to the inclination to do what is harmful or destructive. This is also a manifestation of anger. Anger that is allowed to build can darken one’s heart so that the person desires real harm or loss for those with whom they are angry. This is the very antithesis of love, and therefore is profoundly wicked. If a believer finds such a disposition growing within, it must be immediately recognized for the evil that it is, and the hostility that feeds the malice must be removed from one’s heart. If not dealt with, eventually one’s deceptive heart will figure out a justification for acting on the malice one feels which will lead to even greater sin.
II. Control your Speech: (vs.8)
Next, Paul admonishes believers about the sorts of things that believers are never to say to one another. The first of these is “blasphemy”. In modern English, blasphemy refers to some sort of irreverent expression toward God. However, the Greek term from which this word comes, means to slander in a general sense and can refer to the slander directed toward another human being or God. In this case, since the context is about relational harmony between believers, the reference applies to the slander we direct toward other people. The basic sense of this slander is that it is an attack upon another person’s character or reputation. Often slander is practiced behind the backs of those being slandered. This is gossip, and it is sin (Ps.15:3). Denigrating others destroys our relationships with those we attack, and it is harmful to those with whom we share our verbal poison. Because when we slander others in conversation we involve the listeners in our sin; unless they confront the sin and distance themselves from it. If those we speak to indulge our wicked attacks on others, it desensitizes them to the evil of doing such things and encourages them to practice it as well. Therefore this must be passionately avoided.
The second form of evil speech that Paul says must be put off is “filthy language”. The translation here is literally accurate, but the implication of the words means something different in our culture than in the first century. In our time the expression “filthy language” refers to obscene or vulgar words or expressions. However, in the first century it referred to abusive speech; in other words saying things to others that wound or tear them down. The expression carries the sense of those words that seriously wound others, not those that result in a minor offensive (not that it is acceptable to hurt people just a little, only that the term itself focuses on things that deeply wound). Often we minimize the harm that words can do. The reality is that words which cut deeply can leave life-long scars. Most people can remember hurtful things that were said to them decades before. Abusive speech does real harm to the souls of others. This sort of speech profoundly damages relationships, and it is extremely difficult to repair the damage that words can do to a relationship. Words once spoken, can never be taken back. The other person may forgive you, they may try to put it out of their mind; but in lashing out with one’s words you reveal something about yourself that will always leave an impression about you upon those you injure. Therefore, it is far better to never say such things, than it is to try to repair the damage done by them. Since both of these forms of speech damage relationships and lead to real emotional distance between people; these types of speech have no place in the life of the believer.
III. Be Honest: (vs.9)
Paul exhorts the Colossian believers not to “lie to one another”. Elsewhere, the Scriptures reveal two important truths that relate to the importance of honesty within the family of God. First, we are told that the truth is an essential part of God’s nature:
On the other hand we are told that it is the devil’s nature to lie:
From this we see that truth and honesty are godly qualities, while deceiving others is devilish. This does not mean that you can never withhold information; that is not the same as lying. Instead it means that being truthful is in harmony with our new natures as born again children of God. There are a number of things that are included in this admonition. Most clearly, this is instruction to never say anything to another believer that we know is not true. However, it also means not to affirm anything that one does not know for sure that something is true. In other words if it is our impression or opinion that something is true, we should express it as our opinion and not as fact. To express our opinion as if it were fact, is part of what it means to be deceptive. Another facet of this is the virtue of faithfulness. We are to be true to our word and do what we say we will do, even if that faithfulness costs us something (Ps.15:4). Finally, it means being transparent and genuine with others rather than putting up a façade.
Relationships depend upon trust. The less one person trusts another, the weaker the relational bond between them. The weaker the bond, the more difficult it is to build the relational harmony to which God calls us. Therefore Paul admonishes his readers to put off the fallen tendency to be deceptive and to instead embrace the virtue of truthfulness.
IV. Be Compassionate: (vs.12)
Paul exhorts the Colossian believers to put on “tender mercies”. The Greek words that Paul used could be more literally translated as “bowels of mercy”. The first of the two words refers to the intestines or other organs deep in one’s abdomen. In Hebrew thought, the bowels were the seat of the tender affections, especially kindness, benevolence, and compassion. The second word clarifies the idea of this imagery, because it means sympathy and mercy (in the sense of being moved by the plight or hardships of another person). Therefore the idea of the expression is that the believer should develop compassion for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ as a guiding orientation to our relationships with one another.
The opposite of compassion is indifference or insensitivity toward others. Indifference and insensitivity describe the state of heart where a person has little to no care about the situations, thoughts, or feelings of others. In a very real way, other people mean virtually nothing to them and so they are not genuinely moved the suffering of others. To be insensitive results in giving no real thought through the day how God might use you to be a blessing to someone else. Apart from genuine affection and care for the welfare of another person, it is impossible to form a genuine relational bond with them. Therefore, without this virtue, the oneness of spirit that God desires to see between believers will not be realized. So often in history and in the present what passes for fellowship is superficial, and is little different than the cordiality that one finds in social gatherings in the world.
V. Be kind: (vs.12)
The Apostle next admonishes his readers to be kind to one another. The Greek word rendered as “kind” refers to the inclination to be good to others, to be a source of encouragement and joy. Kindness is an under-valued virtue because we live in a time of spectacle and sensation. Kindness usually manifests itself in quiet subtle ways and so it might appear to make little difference. But the reality is that human beings long for meaningful contact with one another, and need to know others genuinely care about them. Acts of kindness communicate our affection in concrete ways that over time make a big difference in the lives of others.
The opposite of this virtue is to be mean-spirited, which is the inclination to harm or abuse. Those who are kind build others up and make the experience of life better for others. The mean-spirited have an inner resentment or distaste for others. Rather than build up, they tear down; rather than encourage, they bring discouragement to others. This mean-spirited inclination is everyone’s inheritance in the Fall. Therefore, the call to be kind is a call to depart from our previously fallen way of life. Being kind does not just happen, it is the result of the choice to focus on being good to others as a part of our new nature and calling, so we can successfully distance ourselves from our former fallen ways. The virtue of kindness over time opens the hearts of others to believe in the love we say we have for them. When others believe in our love for them it causes their hearts to knit together with ours more and more over time so that real communal fellowship in unity can be attained.
VI. Be Humble-Minded: (vs.12)
Paul next exhorts his readers to pursue the virtue of humility of mind. The English rendering in the NKJV translation is simply “humble”, but this is not precisely correct. Rather than being a call to the virtue in a general sense, the focus of this term is upon the way one thinks; the mental perspective that characterizes an individual. The virtue of humble-mindedness refers to the way you think about yourself in relation to others. The humble-minded person does not perceive themselves to be any more or less significant than anyone else. A humble-minded person’s thoughts are not centered in themselves. By contrast, those who lack this virtue are self-centered, focused continually on their own ideas, their own concerns, the things they wish to say, and how they are perceived by others. The definition of pride and arrogance is to be self-obsessed (and of course pride, like most things comes in degrees of intensity). Being humble-minded does not mean that one is always saying negative things about oneself. In truth such habits are a product of pride, because the one doing this is trying to draw attention to themselves by attempting to appeal to the pity of others.
A humble perspective is not only healthy in the sense that it is a realistic view of one’s place in the world; it also promotes relationships. Pride is repulsive, while humility is attractive. No one, not even those gripped with pride, are drawn to others because of their arrogant spirit. People are drawn to those who are humble because it expresses a genuine vulnerability, and an acknowledgement of the brokenness we all experience. Though acknowledging weakness and frailty, the humble-minded person does not focus on those things, and certainly does not seek for others to focus on those things about them. Instead, the humble-minded is willing to focus on the needs and concerns of others, because they genuinely see the lives and concerns of others as important as their own.
VII. Be Gentle: (vs.12)
Paul next exhorts his readers to pursue meekness. The Greek word translated as “meekness” refers to gentleness of attitude and behavior, in contrast with harshness in one’s dealings with others. Like “kindness” “meekness” and “gentleness” are not highly valued in our time. The emphasis in our time, as in many other eras is upon strength, and power. Meekness and gentleness are often confused with weakness or impotence. The truth is that gentleness does not relate so much to how much power a person does or does not have; it relates to the control a person has over whatever power they do possess. A gentle or meek person is one who is control of his or her power. In reality those who are absolutely weak cannot be gentle, because they have no power to restrain. The gentle person is one who is aware of the damage that uncontrolled power can do, and is unwilling to be the cause of harm to others and thus restrains themselves in any way necessary to ensure that they do not use their power in a hurtful way.
The opposite of this virtue is an aggressive and harsh inclination toward others. This is also part of fallen human nature. Therefore as you would expect, the new person in Christ is called to be just the opposite of this destructive personality. The harsh person never gives a thought or a care about how their actions, words, behavior, or choices may adversely affect others. This is at odds with the call to love one’s fellow believers in Christ. Relationships can only grow strong in an atmosphere of safety. If we are unsafe to relate to, we will not be able to form the relational bonds that God has commanded us to pursue.
Therefore, we are called upon to manifest our real love for others by choosing to regard them as important enough to restrain ourselves so that we do not wound or hurt them; knowing that this is something we could do unintentionally if we are not careful. We make ourselves safe, so our relationships with others may flourish.
VIII. Be Patience: (vs.12-13)
For the last of the virtues, Paul not only calls his readers to pursue it, he explains what the virtue entails, and gives the rationale for its practice. Paul writes, “put on…longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” Longsuffering is the virtue of enduring wrongs by others without retaliating or retreating from the relationship. It is a synonym for patience. This virtue is based on the premise that others will let us down, sin against us, wound us, and discourage us. The natural fallen inclination is to lash out at others as soon as we are hurt or inconvenienced in any way. In fact to it is natural to our flesh to lash out against anything we simply do not like. However, in Christ we are to be different. Since we are to love our fellow Christians, it means we are to value them as important to us as we are to ourselves; thus we are to treat them as we ourselves wish to be treated (Matt.7:12). We all want others to bear with us and to forgive us. After all we can always think of some sort of justification or excuse for the things we do. Since we are inclined to feel that we are worthy of forgiveness, we should be inclined to feel to be forgiving toward our fellow believers.
Paul brings in a further dimension to the matter of patience. Christ taught that we are not only to treat others as we wanted them to treat us, but we are to treat others as we want God to treat us. Christ explained that when we make judgments about others it should be in harmony with how we want God to administrate His judgments about us (Matt.7:1-2). Therefore Paul advises his readers to forgive others for their sins, as Christ forgave us for our sins against Him and the Father. When we genuinely realize the profound nature of our own sinfulness before God, then the sins of others become insignificant in comparison. And if we recognize that His forgiveness of our sins was unmerited, then we are willing to forgive others who do not deserve our forgiveness either. In this way we learn to relate to each other on the basis of grace rather than merit.
We are to be patient with others because God has been patient with us. God’s patience was mandatory in order for us to have a relationship with Him, and our patience with one another is necessary if we are to have a harmonious relationship with one another.
Paul put his ethical instruction in context. He wrote, that believers are being “renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (vs.10). The objective or goal of this renewal is knowledge. It is the knowledge of God; an understanding of who He is and what that understanding means for the way in which one is to live his or her life. The flow of thought indicates that it is the pursuit of these virtues that is part of the process of developing this knowledge renewal. Therefore, first, the call to pursue these virtues is a part of the larger focus of our lives; learning to live as God’s children should. This knowledge is also said to be “according to the image of Him who created him”. This means the standard we seek to grow into is the full restoration of God’s image and likeness within our lives and hearts. Therefore to not actively pursue these virtues is to miss God’s overall plan for our lives.
Paul then concluded with the thought, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body” (vs.14-15). All these virtues are simply practical expressions of the love that believers are to have for one another. Paul says that love is the “bond of perfection”. The Greek word translated as “bond” means the same thing as its English counterpart. It refers to that which ties or strongly connects one thing to another. This bond has as its goal the perfection of the community so that the fellowship is one with each other as the Son is one with the Father.
Finally, Paul adds the last aspect of the context. The peace of God is to rule in the believers’ hearts. The Greek word translated as “rule” means to decide or determine, and basically refers to the role of a referee who exists to make sure something is done according to the rules that govern the activity in the midst of contested situations. In this case the principle that determines what is ultimately right or wrong in our relationships with one another is peace. Peace of course is not merely tranquility or the absence of strife. The Hebrew concept of shalom (peace) is wholesomeness and well-being. So peace speaks not simply of the lack of conflict it refers to what makes for genuinely healthy and wholesome relationships from God’s perspective. In other words our choices, actions, and speech are to be governed by the overarching concern to promote healthy relationships with our fellow Christians that will allow us all to be unified around the mind of Christ.
In the Bonds of Christ,